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Environment

Shell oil drill ship goes aground in Alaska

An oil drill ship owned by Shell has run aground on an island off the coast of Alaska. It is carrying 150,000 gallons of diesel and about 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid.

The mobile drilling unit Kulluk broke loose from tow vessels during a severe Gulf of Alaska storm and ran aground Monday in shallow water off uninhabited Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. The Coast Guard is planning a salvage operation and possible spill response, though a flight over the Kulluk found no sign of a fuel spill.

Shell and the Coast Guard said they will have to wait until daylight to know for certain what environmental impact the grounding could have.

The Kulluk was being towed by a 360-foot anchor handler, the Aiviq, and a tugboat, the Alert. The vessels were trying to escape the worst of a North Pacific storm that included winds near 70 mph and swells to 35 feet when the drill ship broke free from the Aiviq.

Coast Guard Commander Shane Montoya told reporters: "Once the Aiviq lost its tow, we knew the Alert could not manage the Kulluk on its own as far as towing, and that's when we started planning for the grounding," he said. "The Alert was not able to do anything as far as towing the Kulluk but tried to maintain some kind of control."

Susan Childs, Shell's on-scene coordinator, said she did know how the vessel would react to being hit by storm winds and waves when it was aground and stationary.

The vessel first separated from a towing vessel Thursday night south of Kodiak Island. It was carrying a skeleton crew of 17 as it was towed by the Aiviq from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands to Seattle for maintenance. The tow line broke at a shackle attached to one of the vessels.

"It was new. It was inspected before it left Dutch, but it broke," said Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith.

The grounding of the Kulluk is a blow to Shell's $4.5 billion (3.4 billion euro) offshore program in Alaska. The energy giant's plan to convert the area into a major new oil frontier has alarmed environmentalists.

The leading Democrat on the US House of Representatives' Natural Resources Committee, Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, issued a statement that the incident illustrated the dangers of oil drilling in the Arctic.

"Oil companies cannot currently drill safely in the foreboding conditions of the Arctic, and drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment," he said.

jm/dr (AP, Reuters)